by the Revd Canon Dr Simon Taylor, Canon Chancellor of Derby Cathedral
Credit where it is due, whoever first coined ‘God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve’ has a real gift for slogans and headlines. But not, I fear, for theology.
One of the loudest arguments for the exclusion of same-sex relationships from the Church has been the complementarian position that marriage is by definition male and female. In turn this is based on an understanding of creation in which human beings are made and meant to be male and female.
Creation, in other words, is straight.
Complementarian readings underlie the arguments against equal marriage in official Church documents from a number of churches, and can be found across the traditions of the Church from Roman Catholics to free evangelicals.
But I am far from convinced that this is the right way to be reading Scripture. What I propose to do in this post is to look at some key Biblical texts and then to see if a larger Biblical vision might be offered.
The first key text, foundational to complementarian arguments, is Genesis 1.27-28:
“So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them
male and female he created them.
God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’”
This is a rich passage, which stands at the root of whole tradition of human rights.
A complementarian reading of this passage attends carefully to the way in which the image of God structures humanity as male and female. Combined with the injunction to procreation, this is then taken to require heterosexual relationships.
There are, however, serious difficulties with this approach:
First, it is in danger of requiring couplings of male and female in order to display the image of God. What then do we have to say for single people?
Second, it takes the command to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ as a command for every couple, rather than for the species as a whole. What then of the childless, the elderly and the infertile?
Third, it loses the way the passage insists that the image of God is seen in women as well as in men. This has not, through the history of humanity and the history of the Church, been something seen as obvious. Sexual relationships have been constituted as expressions of male power, underwritten by a male God. Genesis 1.27-28 begs to differ.
There is an important role for Genesis 1.27-28 in structuring human relationships and society. All human beings are to be seen as reflecting God’s image, across the whole variety of humanity. As a species, humans are to value their children. Valuing males over females is not consistent with the creation of people. To read this passage as asserting that only a male-plus-female partnership is valid is to endanger its power to support human flourishing.
At the end of the second creation story in Genesis, God creates woman from the rib of man. The passage ends with the writer’s comment that:
“Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Genesis 2.24).
This text has also been taken to support a complementarian account of human relationships. The ‘one flesh’ that derives from marriage is taken to require a man and a woman.
Again, there are problems with this reading:
First, the ‘one flesh’ that Genesis 2.24 speaks about is an expression of kinship, not of sexual relations. ‘One flesh’ could be polygamous, and often is in the Old Testament. Despite this being the ‘go-to text’ for monogamy, the marriage envisioned is not simply the pairing of a man and a woman.
Second, the order in which the man and woman are created has been taken to imply the subordination of women, 1 Timothy 2.11-15 being a prime example. Yet we have already seen that Genesis 1.27-28 is seeking to deny such subordination.
Third, Genesis 2.24 needs to be read as part of the whole story, which begins at verse 18. To read the final verse in isolation misses the whole point of the story.
In the story of Genesis 2, God creates the animals so that the ‘man’ (adam), the first human person, should not be alone. As the first human names the animals, none is found to be a helper and partner. But there is a real sense that they might have been. Then God creates woman from the flesh of the first human. Again, the human names the creature woman (‘ishah) and names himself man (‘ish).
The force of the story is on the consent of the person, and the delight of the man in the woman. Consent and delight are what structures this story. Gareth Moore writes of “the final bankruptcy of the compulsory heterosexuality interpretation of the story of Adam and Eve. Not only does it misrepresent God as one who imposes his will regardless of human delight, but … it completely undermines the dynamic that leads to the creation of Eve.”[i]
Both Genesis 1.27-28 and Genesis 2.24 are brought together by Jesus:
“Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning ‘made them male and female’ and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’” (Matthew 19.4-5).
The complementarian argument here is that this gives the authority of Jesus to their interpretations of Genesis, and does so clearly in a discussion about marriage. When Jesus speaks of marriage, they argue, he does so in a complementarian model of male and female.
I see nothing in this passage that changes the force of the readings I have offered of the two Genesis passages. Indeed, I would be happy to see Jesus reinforcing the assertion of Genesis 1 that women are fully human, and the assertions of Genesis 2 that consent and joy are at the heart of all human relationships. Nothing that Jesus says in Matthew’s account need be understood as requiring a complementarian account of human beings.
A Broader Biblical Vision
Recently, N. T. Wright has spoken of the Bible as:
“an entire narrative which works with this complementarity so that a male-plus-female marriage is a signpost or a signal about the goodness of the original creation and God’s intention for the eventual new heavens and new earth.”[ii]
Respectfully, I want to disagree with this. I hope the readings above demonstrate the ways in which I disagree with Wright on the way that creation is read as male-plus-female.
It may be worth briefly thinking about Wright’s assertion that “a male-plus-female marriage is a signpost.” The great Biblical vision of marriage and the new creation is of the people of God as a bride (Isaiah 62.4-5; Revelation 19.6-9). Notice here that the entirety of God’s people are described as female, as a bride.
If we read from the Scriptures to the people of God without any further thought or insight, we might find ourselves requiring all God’s people to be female. Rather than arguing about whether women can take leadership roles in the Church, or whether we can have women bishops, we might find we need books and articles explaining why men can be Christians at all. The image of the bride is gendered.
Yet I am not aware of any theologian or interpreter of the Bible that has taken that image as determining the gender of individuals within the people of God. Even if the creation narratives do speak of a complementary relationship between male and female at the heart of creation, it is a quite different theological move to require such a relationship of every individual person or couple within God’s people.
If creation does not require a complementarian view of human relationships; and a better approach to signposting would be helpful; what then of the broad narrative of Scripture?
I want to suggest a broad reading of the story of God and his creation, that is rooted in reconciliation, and which would bring all human relationships into the story as potentially speaking of the love of God for his creation.
Key to this understanding is Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. Paul writes:
“But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, so that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God” (Ephesians 2.13-22).
At the heart of God’s purposes is the bringing together of all things and all people, however far off they may once have seemed. The death of Christ brings everyone into one new humanity, putting hostility to death. All are reconciled to God in one body, and no one is a stranger or an alien, but citizens and saints.
The picture here is one of the fullness of God and of creation, with all things reconciled and built together into a place where God can live. There is difference, but it is reconciled, no longer requiring hostility between different groups. And there is a wide range of difference that has been reconciled: male and female, Jew and gentile, married and single, different races and nations, people of different sexualities and different gender identities.
Is this reconciliation easy? No, it is costly and requires working out. But the cost was paid by Christ in his death. The working out starts from there.
The Bible calls us to a bigger and fuller vision of God and his creation. But that vision is not structured by human relationships, but by Christ in whom “the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling-place for God” (Ephesians 2.21-22).
Complementarian readings of Scripture are in danger of getting this the wrong way round, which results in structuring Christ around human relationships. To limit the Biblical vision to a simple ‘male-plus-female’ is to limit the creative and reconciling power of God.
Creation is not straight, it is full of difference, all of which is reconciled into one new humanity through Jesus.
[i] Gareth Moore OP, A Question of Truth: Christianity and Homosexuality (London and New York: Continuum, 2003), p. 143.
[ii] Matthew Schmitz, ‘N. T. Wright on Gay Marriage: Nature and narrative point to complementarity’, https://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2014/06/n-t-wrights-argument-against-same-sex-marriage [Accessed 14.7.19.]
About the Author
The Revd Canon Dr Simon Taylor is Canon Chancellor of Derby Cathedral. He is the author of two books, including How to Read the Bible (without switching off your brain) (SPCK, 2015).
He is soon to take up a new role as Director of Ministry Development in the Diocese of Bristol.